Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Death By Invitation (1971)

Lise (Shelby Leverington) is the reincarnation of a woman killed as a witch way back in ye olden days of randomly applied white face paint and axing women at the stake.

As witches and non-witches alike love to do, Lise's nameless ancestress has sworn revenge on the descendants of the main instigator of her killing, one Peter Vroot (Aaron Phillips). Lise has managed to charm (or whatever, I'm doing exposition the film just doesn't bother with here) herself into the position of the favourite family friend of the 70s version of the Vroots (who are of course all played by the same actors as their old-timey versions), and is now beginning to kill the family members off one by one, probably so that the 70s version of Peter - an intensely unpleasant and self-important businessman with an intelligence only slightly above that of certain houseplants - can suffer a bit more before he comes to his bloody end.

Chances are, anyone reading this will have watched quite a few other movies following more or less the same plot line and has her expectations about how the film will turn out to be set. Death By Invitation has its own and very particular charms, though, which are only in line with expectations of the grandly but cheaply weird.

The film's director Ken Friedman obviously was trying to art house his little low budget horror movie up to the gills, producing exactly the indubitably 70s sort of mixture of the dubiously successful highbrow and the equally dubiously successful lowbrow I take to like a centuries old vampire does to schoolgirls and Southern small town waitresses.

Friedman puts quite a bit of work into avoiding the usual sad point and shoot trappings of this sort of film, so most shots are much better composed than you'd expect. At the same time, every shot is also as peculiar as they come. It's easy to see with how much thought every scene has been put together, yet on the other hand it is nearly impossible for someone not sharing Friedman's brainspace to understand what these thoughts are exactly about, leaving the happy viewer with a feeling of light-headed drifting and vague ideas that the film is somehow about feminism (or not).

Drifting is also what the movie's script (also written by Friedman) does most of the time. The conventional plot gets lost in weird scenes that come out of nowhere and lead anywhere. Lise prepares her first murder victim through a long, absurdly intense acted monologue about "the Southern Tribes", in which "the women were the hunters, the men were domesticated"; a man (actually the male lead, but let's not go there) gets himself "comically" (except that it isn't funny) lost searching for Vroot's office and later has a screaming match with the man trying to be louder than the music that's smattering in the background for no good reason whatsoever; an elderly priest does a particularly bad reading from the Book of Job at a graveside; library music jumps the audience's ears when they least expect it. Some of this is be supposed to be humorous, possibly ironic, but it's impossible to be sure in a film that doesn't include any normality from which the humour can successfully deviate.

The film's feel of inexplicable moodiness is further enhanced by acting performances that fit the bizarre tendencies of everything else on screen perfectly. Shelby Leverington is the only member of the cast who has gone on to something like an acting career (mostly on TV), and she's certainly the most professional person in the cast. I wouldn't call her performance "good" in a conventional sense - that sort of "good" doesn't belong into this movie anyhow - but it sure is intense. For most of the other actors, Death By Invitation is the only IMDB credit. They are therefore ideally qualified to provide the mixture of the awkward and the freakish that the movie needs to survive without just being a boring slog.

Although - truth be told - some viewers might still judge Death By Invitation to be boring and slow. It certainly is if you're on the look-out for straight thrills. If, on the other hand, you're looking for thrills of the more outlandish sort, you're in perfectly good hands with Friedman's film.


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